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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

March 11, 2013


After perusing the list of top-selling education books from last year, I was immediately drawn to Paul Tough’s How Children SucceedI mean, don’t we all just want to know the answer to that one little question? How DO children succeed?

This is the first non-fiction page turner I’ve read in quite a while. It provides multiple research perspectives about what prevents certain children from achieving the most positive outcomes in their adult lives. What characteristics do some children have that others do not? As a teacher, I found it to provide some refreshing and encouraging anecdotes about children who have defied the odds and the adults who helped them accomplish this. The stories and research summaries could provide a background for interesting discussions, particularly with a school staff or as part of an educational book study.

The middle school teacher in me particularly enjoys this quote:

The reason the teenage years have always been such a perilous time […] is that the incentive processing system reaches its full power in early adolescence while the cognitive control system doesn’t finish maturing until you’re in your twenties. So for a few wild years, we are all madly processing incentives without a corresponding control system to keep our behavior in check.

So that’s why middle schools are such crazy places!


Educreations for Error Analysis in Math

March 5, 2013

Over the past few days, my students and I have been struggling with their understanding of how to calculate the area of irregular shapes. Despite their solid knowledge of the formulas and a deep understanding of how to decompose shapes, many of them struggled with how to find the missing measurements when given a few, but not all, measurements of a shape. My frustration led to the creation of an activity that is almost complete student-directed, freeing me up to answer questions and correct misconceptions immediately because I was not tied down checking student answers.

This ended up working very well and I anticipate being able to recreate this activity in the future with other topics.

Objective: Students can calculate the area of irregular shapes as evidenced by their Educreations Reflections.

Teacher preparation:

  1. Create a few practice problems. I ended up using 7 shapes, which was enough to last for about 2 full class periods. You can find my irregular shape practice questions here.
  2. Use Educreations to create a video explaining how to solve each problem. This was the most time-intensive part for me, but still only took about 45 minutes to work out all of the problems. Save the videos to your account.
  3. Log in to your Educreations account and get the unique link for each video.
  4. Create a QR Code for each video. (Here are my QR Codes for the practice shapes. Scan them to see the videos I used.)
  5. Post the QR Codes around the classroom.
  6. Copy practice problems. I made about three copies of each, then put them in clear sheet protectors so students could use dry erase markers to work the problems. Saved me some precious paper!
  7. Copy the reflection sheet. This is the most important part, in my opinion. I stressed to students that I was less concerned about a right answer and more concerned about their ability to pinpoint where they made mistakes. Here is the reflection sheet I used.

Student activity:

  1. Choose a shape/practice problem and solve it.
  2. Record their answer on the reflection sheet.
  3. Go to the corresponding QR code and scan it.
  4. Watch the Educreations video and compare it to their own work.
  5. Reflect on how their work differed from the teacher example and write this reflection.
  6. Create a goal of something they will do differently on the next problem.
  7. Choose a new shape and start at #1!

Organizing Your Bretford Cart for Survivor Cases

September 24, 2012

In a post a few weeks ago, I listed Griffin Survivor cases as a must-have for your classroom iPads. The only problem is that they don’t fit comfortably in the popular Bretford PowerSync cart. We have figured out a way around this that requires some time and effort on the front end, but pays off in ease of use and protection of technology. Below are some photos of how our carts look. This is the method we chose to use, but it’s certainly not the only way to organize the carts.

Back of Cart

This first photo is actually one I created to use with our teachers in training (we have had issues with iPads not being charged for the next person to use). However, it shows you how I used tape to cover up the numbers already printed on the cart, since you can really only comfortably fit 25 iPads in the cart with cases. You certainly would not have to follow this step, but it would be quite difficult to know which iPad is charging or not charging.


As you can see in this photo, sometimes the dividers slide around in the cart as the one in the middle on the bottom shelf has done. We haven’t found a way to prevent this, so if you know of one, please contact me! Also, numbering the slots prevents people from trying to jam too many iPads into one section. If you do that, the home button may stay pushed in and the iPad will lose charge quickly.

Number Plugs

Yet again, this step allows teachers to see which connectors need to be re-plugged if the light in the back is not lit.

Overall, this system has worked really well for us. It is certainly not the most aesthetically pleasing setup, but it serves its purpose!

Do More Choices Lead to Better Schools?

September 10, 2012

The news media and educational reformers have been touting the merits of school choice and providing a myriad of choices to families. My district has embraced this whole-heartedly by infusing charter, magnet, lottery, and “focus” schools into the mix. There are schools for all boys, schools for certain grades, academic magnet schools, language emersion schools, small learning communities, and, well, this list could go on for pages. In fact, there are so many choices that many parents do not know where to begin when searching for a good fit for their child.

As a strong supporter of neighborhood and community schools, I often grapple with the idea of so much school choice. I know deep down that every school will not serve every child’s needs in the same way. In fact, having school choices is what is best for many families who strive to find a school that fits their child’s needs. I have seen first hand how some students flourish in environments and situations that my classroom or school could not provide (and vice-versa). For many students and families, greater flexibility is indeed necessary.

However, I am disturbed at the notion that these choice schools are taking away from the human capital and financial support that neighborhood schools need and deserve. There are numerous “choice schools” that are not performing up to the standards necessary. In fact, there are some of these schools that are failing children. The students are not thriving and learning in some environments, and this is a true travesty.

Let us be critical when granting schools this “choice” status. I applaud the school board’s recent decision not to back down when pressed to grant a charter to Great Hearts. Board members had the foresight to notice this school was not prepared to adequately serve all students. It is my hope that we can continue to view school choice through a critical lens to ensure that the choices being provided will serve students in ways that are not currently possible. I also sincerely hope that we can continue monitoring those schools of choice with the same expectation for success we hold for neighborhood and zoned schools. A greater quantity of school choices is not enough. We must strive for every choice to be of the highest quality.


Creating QR Codes

September 7, 2012

In using technology in the classroom, one of the biggest challenges I have found is getting students onto the webpages they need to use. I have found ways to address this such as creating a blog or website of my own for students to know and access regularly. I typically just update the posts with the links they will need. Edmodo is also great for posting links. However, the iPad camera allows for the use of QR codes, which are much easier than even the options listed above.

You may have seen QR (“Quick Response”) codes around on advertisements, product packaging, or even business cards. The square-shaped pattern is similar to a UPC in that it stores information to be read by a scanner. QR codes are different, though, because they store text instead of just the numbers that UPCs contain. There’s a fun fact for you!

Many teachers at my school have expressed a desire to know how to create QR codes.  The step-by-step instructions for this are listed below.
Creating a QR Code

  1. Navigate to the site you want people to access on the mobile device.
  2. Copy the URL from that website.
  3. Go to your QR code generator (I use Kaywa).
  4. Paste the URL in the box on the generator.
  5. Click “Generate” (or “Generate Free” on Kaywa).
  6. Copy the image by right-clicking on it and choosing “Copy Image.”
  7. Paste the image into the Microsoft Word document. You can find the template I created by clicking here.
  8. Title your QR Code.
  9. Print the QR Codes. You might need 4 codes for your whole class. Students can scan it and then pass it along to save paper.

I also created a video tutorial to walk you through the process. You can find the video here.

“It’s just so sad.”

September 4, 2012

“It’s just such sad story,” lamented the small group of ladies, each shaking their heads as their eyes fell to the floor.

This was the scene I recently witnessed while volunteering at a local shelter. Every one of these women is well-meaning and good-hearted, but this conversation would have indicated anything but. They had just finished standing around the kitchen, whispering details of a new resident’s life story, hoping another resident or (heaven forbid) the one whose story was being aired didn’t walk in.

I was fed up, but not strong enough to say something. After all, I had met these women merely an hour earlier and have been working on filtering my language in an effort to offend fewer people. Don’t they know this isn’t their story to tell?

Shouldn’t the discussion center around the strength this resident exhibited? Or her courage? Or even the renewed hope she now had?

I often find myself in situations like these. Teachers feel as though they should discuss students’ life stories as entertaining tragedies at dinner parties and happy hours, and I’ll admit that I am sometimes guilty. However, I often attempt to focus on the promise in each child’s life. They are extremely resilient, stronger than their age should allow, and resourceful beyond their years.

Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about all of the things these children have to offer at school, no matter what their background or life experiences. It’s my goal to begin speaking up to alert teachers when they begin using students’ lives as entertainment. Instead, I hope to have their stories inspire me.

Their stories are incredibly inspiring. That should be the focus.

Also check out “Haunting Words to Inspire Every Teacher,” a blog post from last August by Marilyn Rhames. The idea that, “It happened to them,” will never stop pushing me to view students’ lives through a different lens.

Heartwarming Success Story

August 27, 2012

A few months ago, I wrote a post about an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “The Education of Dasmine Cathey.” Dasmine’s story struck me for two reasons: (1) it reminds me of Steven, a former student who forever touched my life and (2) I believe these stories are more common than many of us would care to think.  I think of this story often, bringing Dasmine’s name in conversations about the importance of identifying struggling students and providing them with meaningful and effective interventions (academic and otherwise).

Then, two Sundays ago, my family and I were packed into seats in Memphis’ FedEx Forum to watch my little sister graduate from the University of Memphis.  I was engrossed in my Twitter feed, while my mother and father followed along in the printed program with the names being called, each of us trying to keep from dying of boredom.

“Dasmine D. Cathey,” stated the Pronouncer.

I nearly jumped out of my seat with excitement.  My father thought I had gone crazy, but then I explained the story to him.  It’s possible that I was more proud of “Daz” (whom I’ve never met) than I was of my own sister for graduating. (Don’t tell her this.)

If you would like to see the program for yourself, click here.